Friday, 25 September 2009

Jonah, other religions and salvation

A bit more controversial. But preaching Jonah has shifted me slightly on this topic.

The intent of Jonah 3 in particular seems to be to assert the surprising grace of God. The Ninevites were pagan synchretists, notoriously wicked and even hostile to God’s chosen people. There is no sense that Jonah explained the fullness of all he could – Yahweh’s redemption of Israel and promises to one day be fulfilled in Christ, the requirements of the law centred on the commandments etc. No, on the basis of chapter 1, the most we might insert is that he declared that the God bringing the judgement was the God of Israel, who made heaven and earth (1v9).

Yet the Ninevites then reasoned (probably through the concepts of their own religions) that this God might show mercy, and so cried out with repentance to that end – a repentance Jesus teaches as a model of saving repentance (Matthew 12v41). Now we can’t even be sure that these Ninevites then rejected all other gods. Nevertheless, because of the wideness of God’s mercy, he relented in a way consistent with his character as declared in Exodus 34 (Jonah 4v2). And as this character was a revelation of his glory, he glorified himself in doing so.

In the light of this specific purpose to the book of Jonah, we just cannot therefore assert with any certainty that there is no salvation apart from conscious faith in Jesus Christ. Romans 1 tells us that although we suppress the truth about God, all humanity still instinctively know there is a Creator (v20-21) and that we deserve punishment at his hand (v32). Moreover, there is a widespread consensus today that the God who revealed himself to Israel is the God of heaven and earth (agreed by Jews, Christians, Muslims and pluralists). It would seem quite possible then, that by the initiative of God’s grace, some may respond in a way equivalent to that of the Ninevites.

Having said that, we should note: (a) we can never know whether an individual has sufficient knowledge to repent in this way, (b) by nature they do not tend to repent in this way, (c) other religions do not encourage repentance in this way, but discourage it by encouraging a reliance on moral or religious works for merit before God, (d) only a response to the gospel can give us confidence of repentance in this way, of certain salvation and of a life that glorifies God, and (e) the sharing of the gospel is God's normative means of bringing this salvation. Therefore our missionary concern to proclaim Christ to the nations should in no way be lessened. For although some may occasionally be saved without having heard of him, we can only be sure anyone is by seeing them consciously respond to him.

To clarify then, salvation apart from such knowledge would be despite the person’s inherited religion (or beliefs). It would be because they see just enough of the true God through its seriously stained glass (or in the artwork of creation), that they acknowledge him as their Creator and Judge, and so repent with deep sincerity and cry to him alone for mercy.

And can I stress that we should hold the possibility of such salvation not because people are somehow worthy, their religions somehow sufficient, or forgiveness somehow possible without Christ and his death on the cross. No, none of these statements are true. Rather, we must hold this is possible because we want to do justice to the Bible’s whole teaching, and because we want to glorify God in the way scripture does - for the potential wideness of his mercy to those of even deeply limited knowledge about him.

So how should the NT texts of the uniqueness of Christ and the need for faith in him be understood? There is no possibility of salvation but for his incarnation and work. And there is no certainty of salvation but for explicit faith in him. Those throughout the world stand condemned by nature because they sin, suppress the truth of God in creation and do not believe in his Son who alone can remove that condemnation (Eph 2v1-3, Rom 1v18-32, John 3v16-18). There is therefore no other name to believe in for salvation but his name (Acts 4v12).

Nevertheless, Jonah 3 would suggest that those who do not look to other saviours or to pagan gods for salvation, yet do not have sufficiently knowledge about Jesus, may be looking to him in an ultimate sense by believing in the God of heaven and earth as Lord and so as Judge and Master. And this surely fits, because Jesus is this Lord. Of course we should add that the test of a sufficient response will be that when faced with the gospel they will readily accept it as the Spirit enables them to recognise that the God they cry out to is in fact Jesus.